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TEXAS FIREBALL

by Kevin Reid

GREENSBORO GRASSHOPPERS PITCHER TYLER KOLEK HEATS UP THE MOUND

It hasn’t been that long since teenager Tyler Kolek was firing baseballs over one hundred miles per hour for his high school baseball team. In fact, Kolek is still a teenager and he is pitching – but now he does his hurling for the Greensboro Grasshoppers. He is rated as the top prospect in the Miami Marlins organization and is expected to be a top of the rotation starting pitcher for the National League team.

“Tyler has a bright future ahead of him,” said Jeremy Powell, pitching coach of the Grasshoppers. “Working with him is a big responsibility, but he wants to be good, and that makes it fun.”

Kolek grew up on the Trinity River Land and Cattle Co., 10,000-acre cattle farm in Shepherd, Texas, about an hour and a half north of Houston.

“My dad (James) grew up ranching,” Kolek said. “He’s been there since 1989. My mom’s (Brenda) side of the family was more involved in rice fields and stuff like that.”

Kolek’s idol was Nolan Ryan, but this fireball hurler pitched before young Tyler, born on December 15, 1995, was around. Kolek does remember watching Houston, during its only World Series, which it lost in four games to the Chicago White Sox.

“I was a huge fan of Roy Oswalt,” Kolek said of the Astros’ star pitcher of the time.

Later when Brenda Kolek was teaching about 15 minutes from home, she was able to use some of her school’s Astros season tickets to take her sons to see them.

“As a fan, I got to watch Craig Biggio several times before he retired,” Kolek said. “He and Jeff Bagwell were awesome.”

When you grow up on a large cattle ranch like Tyler and his brother, Stephen, did, there is always work to be done.

“It’s a little different growing up on a ranch than city life,” Kolek said. “You get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and go feed cattle or fix a fence. It’s hot out there in the summer. I think it makes you a lot tougher than the average high school kid.”

With the small schools in the tiny town of Shepherd, there was a need for versatility in athletes. As a result, both Tyler and Stephen, also needless to say, tough from farming, participated in the three major sports. Joshua Jackson, who serves as the head coach of baseball, football and basketball at Shepherd High School was delighted to have such talented brothers at his school.

“In some ways it was difficult to tell that they were brothers,” Jackson said. “Tyler comes across as boisterous and very good natured. Meanwhile, Stephen, 16 months younger, is quieter and definitely appears to be more serious.”

As their athletic activity picked up, with their farm duties and schoolwork, there was definitely less time for watching sports. But there was plenty of time to play them.

“I grew up playing football, basketball and baseball, in middle school and high school,” Kolek said. “If you’re in a small town and you’re big enough, you play all three.”

In football, Tyler was a defensive end and a tight end.

In basketball, he was the team’s center. In addition to pitching, he played first base and a little third in baseball. While playing first, an injury knocked him out of athletic activity for three months during his junior year.

“I was playing first as the base runner was running and a ball crossed over the line,” he remembered. “I didn’t pay attention and he ran into my arm. It wasn’t extended or anything. It was just a freak thing and it broke.”

Kolek missed the rest of his junior year waiting for his arm to heal. Did this prevent him from returning to first base in games in which he didn’t pitch?

“No,” answered Kolek. “I played there my senior year. I was a little more cautious on crossing over the line, but I stilled played first.”

By then, however, Kolek had dropped football and basketball. The rest, as he recovered from the broken bone, added strength to his arm. That’s when Tyler started pitching the ball over 100 miles per hour, something pitchers at any age, including major leaguers, rarely do.

“The summer after my junior year when I was pitching in the Area Code Games was when I first threw really hard,” Kolek recalled. “That’s when everything started to happen.”

“Every game that he pitched for us his senior year, I don’t think there was one game that he didn’t hit over 100 miles per hour multiple times,” Jackson said. “His confidence went through the roof. Tyler knew he could throw strikes and he knew he could get guys out.”

Kolek’s record his senior year at Shepherd High was 5-2, a miniscule earned run average (ERA) of 0.35. He also had 126 strikeouts and only eight walks in 60 1/3 innings pitched. Opposing batters only hit .118 against him. These stats earned him the Gatorade Texas High School Player of the Year award.

Accomplishments like that sent baseball scouts from all over to tiny Shepherd so that they could see the 6-foot-5, 260-pound fireballer. He didn’t need the money and he had committed to Texas Christian, but Kolek’s potential was golden. Scouts would even make side bets on how high his first warm-up pitch each outing would clock.

There were three players speculated by the media to have a chance of being the first person drafted in 2014: Kolek, N.C. state pitcher Carlos Rodon and Brady Aiken, a left-handed pitcher out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego. Houston had the first pick. Did the opportunity to be drafted by the nearby Astros as the overall top spot excite Kolek?

“It didn’t matter to me,” Kolek answered, during a recent interview at NewBridge Bank Park. “I was planning on going to TCU until something better came up.”

On draft day last year, the Astros chose Aiken – a choice they have gone on to regret. Elbow inflammation was soon discovered in the prospect’s left arm and negotiations with the Astros spiraled downward as the team tried to lower Aiken’s bonus. He didn’t sign, underwent Tommy John surgery and was drafted in the first round (17 th overall) this year by the Cleveland Indians.

Meanwhile, things went much smoother between the Miami Marlins, who made Kolek the No. 2 overall pick last year, and their pick. Kolek signed for a $6 million bonus.

The last time the Marlins had the opportunity to choose someone that early in the draft was 1999, when, with the second pick in the first round, they chose another high school right-handed pitcher from a small town in Texas, Josh Beckett. After pitching in the majors from 2001 until 2014, a hip injury forced Beckett to retire from baseball last year. He owns a Herradura Ranch, a 7,000- acre ranch in Cortulla, Texas, that he purchased from money he earned as a ballplayer.

Meanwhile, Kolek, as Beckett’s career was coming to an end, spent last year with the Marlins Gulf Coast League team in Rookie ball. He went 0-3 during that stretch, with a 4.50 ERA in nine games, eight of them starts. He pitched 22 innings, in which he had 18 strikeouts and 13 walks. The numbers weren’t as good as hoped, especially the fact that the speed of his fastball had dropped considerably, as the season wore on, Kolek blamed the drop in his velocity on “getting used to throwing everyday,” and scouting reports blame other issues such as inconsistent direction on his delivery.

Either way, in Instructional League, following the season, the Marlins helped him to improve the speed on his fastball and throw strikes more consistently.

Following the rest of the fall and most of the winter on the ranch, Kolek attended his first spring training this February, knowing that he would be starting the season in Greensboro. He showed up at NewBridge Bank Park with the rest of the team in April.

Grasshoppers manager, Kevin Randel, appreciated having the top draft pick that signed in 2014 among his players.

“It’s good to have a high profile guy on your team,” Randel said. “Tyler comes as expected, a big old country bumpkin with a big arm, just learning the ropes in minor league baseball.”

Kolek also impresses Powell, his pitching coach. “He’s just a big physical athletic kid,” the coach said of his prized prospect. “He’s a good athlete for his size. He handles his weight really well and moves really good.”

One aspect which immediately impressed the coaching staff was Kolek’s interaction with his teammates.

“Everybody loves him,” said Powell. “He’s a good kid.

You wouldn’t know that he was a big-time, first-round pick.”

Randel agrees. “He’s a modest kid,” the manager said. “He’s just another guy in a uniform. That’s how he fits in the clubhouse.”

One example of Kolek’s modesty is when he was asked for this article when he first realized how good he was as a pitcher, his response was “I’m still not that good. I’m just working everyday to get better.”

When he signed his bonus for $6 million, which incidentally had broken Beckett’s record as the highest for a Marlins draft pick, Kolek bought some wheels – a Chevrolet 2500 pick-up truck, which should come in handy when he’s helping out on the farm. Make no mistake about it, cattle farming is still a part of Kolek’s life. While he’s only 19 and is already a millionaire thanks to his baseball talent, he plans to help out on the farm he grew up on and very well could stick with the business down the road, once his baseball career ends.

“Oh yeah,” he said, in answer to the question of his interest in ranching after his pitching career is over. “The market is a little high to get into ranching right now, but one day I might get into it.”

Meanwhile Kolek’s activity remains centered on baseball.

“The biggest thing we’re working on is just calming and controlling the body,” said Powell. “We’re trying to get him to have a good starter routine throughout the year.”

The Marlins are working on Kolek’s other pitches in order to get the most out of his fastball. A slider was replaced early this season by a curveball. Now the slider has returned. Meanwhile, the organization is still working on his change-up. The Marlins are doing the best they can to try to avoid what happened to Jose Fernandez. Fernandez, a right-hander from Cuba was the best pitcher in the South Atlantic League while hurling for Greensboro in 2012. The next year he made it to Miami and was the National League Rookie of the Year. Last year while starting the first game for the Marlins, he was the youngest Opening Day starter for a team sine Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets in 1984. But after about a month of the season Fernandez went down, requiring Tommy John surgery and keeping him out of baseball for over a year.

The Marlins don’t want this to happen to Kolek. As a result, his innings are monitored and rarely does he pitch more than five innings in a game.

“We haven’t got an innings projection on him,” said Randel. “It’s more of a yearly total than an outings total. He’ll tell us when he’s tired and we’ll go get the ball from him.

“Tyler loves to compete,” said Randel. “He doesn’t always have clean outings, but he’s out there competing every day.”

Facing more experienced batters, as well as adjustments in his pitching delivery, can be trying for Tyler. As of this writing, his record for the Hoppers is 4-10, with a 4.43 ERA in 23 games (all starts) 101.2 innings and 73 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, his brother Stephen is taking a different route to the big leagues. He’ll be pitching for Texas A&M, where he just enrolled. Ironically, that’s the school where Beckett was planning to go before he signed with the Marlins.

One of Tyler Kolek’s more interesting victories was not a baseball contest, but a pre-game cow-milking contest held July 24 at NewBridge. Against the since-promoted relief pitcher Sam Alvis, who also grew up around cattle in Texas, Kolek won it and then chugged the milk.

“I’m not that good at cow-milking, but I did the best I could,” said the modest Kolek. “Of course,” he replied on drinking the milk he had just obtained from the cow. “That’s the good stuff. Real milk is by far the best. It beats milk you buy in a store hands down.”

The hope for Kolek to be a big league winner on the mound remains strong, despite growing pains he is suffering as he competes against older players and as he adjusts his pitches. One recent contest saw him strike out nine batters in a five-inning outing.

“I had full command,” he said. “The first inning was a little rough, but I got my fastball back in the zone. I kept throwing it, and they kept missing it.” !

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